POPS: Spaces of Appearance and Performance

Presented by: Karin Tehve

At first glance, the terms “public” and “interior” suggest an essential opposition. Any bounded space must have a set of conditions or rules for entry and create categories of those who are in or out, but there is a complex relationship between physical space and its social reality. Public interiors require careful scrutiny to assess them as such. This presentation proposes to examine the physical characteristics of such spaces and their viability to support gradations of appearance and performance. Hannah Arendt defined the term “the space of appearance” as generated by the action and speech of free citizens. “The Human Condition”, published in 1958, was a philosophical study that investigated the fundamental categories of the “vita active”, its participants free to act and speak and be seen in public. A public life is inextricably tied to the development of one’s identity, a chance to distinguish oneself and influence civic life. Contemporary theories of performativity reverse a critical feature, suggesting that identity is instead constructed by actions, speech and behaviors. Both modalities requires opportunities for unmediated communication, spaces where our actions (speech included) are observed, judged and reacted to by one’s fellow citizens. In the 1960’s, New York City introduced a zoning resolution (aka incentive zoning) that offered private developers the ability to add area and height to building projects in exchange for space given back to its citizens. Between 1961 and 2000, millions of square feet were constructed in exchange for over 500 public spaces. These spaces are now known as POPS (privately owned public spaces)- owned, managed and maintained by the developer or building owner, open for use by the public. POPS include plazas, arcades and remarkably, many interior spaces. The original resolution emphasized access as the most critical aspect. Amended over time, the language of the resolution expanded to include very specific physical characteristics. Early versions included specifications for level changes, relationship to the ground plane and visibility. Later, language was added to include requirements for specific features such as seating and landscaping. While not always explicitly programmed, these amenities helped support-indeed to curate- specific modes of occupation. The specific configurations of those interiors can reinforce existing social conventions and distinctions, or to invite more personal interpretations regarding use. The life of these spaces has been exhaustively documented over time by Jerold S. Kayden, a professor at Harvard University and founder of “Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space”. His research included field surveys conducted in the late 90’s that revealed roughly 50 percent of all POPS did not conform to the applicable guidelines defining publicness. Kayden’s analysis emphasized access, with features that are attractive, usable, and egalitarian. These are a critical mix of opportunities and incentives. However, it is possible to reexamine this analysis to find specific attributes that afford the communion and communication prerequisite to spaces of appearance and performance. For example, 10 East 53rd Street includes an internal corridor connecting exterior public ways. Its primary function is to simply permit motion. This may satisfy the parameters of ostensibly universal access, but it provides no opportunity or cue for any other forms of occupation and thus misses an opportunity to generate experiential meaning independent of that function. The things and spaces we make structure our relationships. Arendt offers the example of a table around which we may stand; in seeing it together the table and we are confirmed. These relationships form both collective experience and individual identity, made up of our ability to make decisions about our environment and about each other.